Ten Days a Madwoman (CBR12 #19)

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly

We’ve reached the first book of the year that I read expressly because it fit a Read Harder Challenge. Task number one is to read a YA non-fiction. I did not have any juvenile non-fiction on my 650 books deep to read list, so I had to go looking. Nellie Bly had recently come up at work and I realized I knew very little about the famous reporter beyond her time in Blackwell or her around the world trip so onto my library request list Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes went.

Its probably been over twenty years since I have read any YA non-fiction, but as soon as I opened the book sense memories of Reading and History classes in my middle school years came flooding back. Its somehow nice to know that the form and structure I had experienced as a youth still existed in a book published within the past four years. Noyes does as promised and tracks Nellie Bly’s life and times, using the standard interstitial asides to build out the larger world surrounding Bly at the turn of the last century. The book is also littered with primary source images and quotes, rooting the reader in the narrative.

I learned things as well, I hadn’t known that Bly spent World War I as a war reporter in Europe or that she had married a millionaire forty years her senior and took over his business after his death, or that she had done an in depth interview with Susan B. Anthony. Bly’s early life was also a mystery to me, but now I know, and knowing is a nice feeling, which is probably why I choose to do history as my profession. This one is a good one for the young readers in your life with questions about any number of things, including journalism and women’s rights.

Hearts on Hold (CBR12 #18)

Hearts on Hold: A Librarian Romance

In my many years of reading and reviewing I have paid little to no attention to Publishers. I pre-ordered Charish Reid’s newest book Hearts on Hold based on emmalita’s review of the ARC. I knew nothing else about the book, its author, or the publishing house. When I opened my nook and found that this was a Carina Press book, home of Cannonball favorite Lucy Parker, I was downright delighted.

Hearts on Hold is the story of Dr. Victoria Reese, English professor at Pembroke University and John Donovan, Children’s Librarian of the town ibrary. Their meet cute is John attending a meeting set up by his boss with Dr. Reese in order to work out an internship program for her University. There are sparks, and when Victoria starts shadowing John at the Library in order to get a handle on what would be entailed in the internship program they also decide to have themselves a sordid affair, except that they each have different definitions and expectations of that phrase.

Victoria and John are great characters existing in an interesting world. Victoria is one of a handful of black professors at her University and is constantly fighting with her Department Head for respect for herself, her female coworkers, and their courses which are not the stodgy courses preferred by the Department Head. She is also wound tighter than a top and in constant battle with her mother’s expectations and interferences in her life and dealing with hinted at but not named Anxiety. John is the sexy, long-haired, tattooed Children’s Librarian who is used to a certain amount of lowered expectations but knows the importance of his work and how to cope with his ADD. He is temporarily in custody of his niece while his sister travels to Sweden for work for two months and is having to adjust from being the fun uncle to the guardian. They each have their own network of friends and family who know them well and engage in the kinds and types of conversations that feel real, and often made me laugh along. I seriously loved John’s Moms (biological and step), their friendship, and their co-parenting of the very much adult John. They handled his broken heart the way that any adult in their late thirties would hope to be treated.  

The ways in which each carry their baggage into their burgeoning relationship shows Reid’s writing strengths. Victoria is using strict rules, schedules, and tamping down her emotions to get through the difficulties in life and as she and John become closer she is slowly letting the masks fall – partly because he recognizes that they are in fact just that. John struggles with feelings of inadequacy as he must work twice as hard often to accomplish basic, expected tasks due to his mental wiring. He is also naturally open and warm, quick with honest terms of endearment and finds himself wanting Victoria to meet him halfway, to be the mask-less version he sees when they are alone and simply be with him, no planned affair. Victoria has things she hasn’t dealt with yet and ends up hurting him, but as this is a Romance, we know that they’ll piece it back together.

Reid deftly handles this complicated web of emotions, at no point does any of the action feel ill-timed or misplaced. Character motivations are crystal clear. With any new to me romance author I had to get used to how Reid writes her sexy scenes, certain vocabulary caught me off-guard and pulled me out, but that’s just because I don’t use that terminology, but I quickly caught on to Reid’s style and enjoyed it greatly.  I hope very much that she has books planned for the side characters whose potential relationships are hinted at (Chris and Jessi especially) but whatever she writes next I’m in, and planning on going back and reading her first novel The Write Escape.

I’ll leave you with Reid discussing her own writing, “I think I said something self-deprecating about finding joy in writing stuff that wasn’t considered “high-brow.” Looking back on it, I regret being so sheepish and insecure. Love stories, if told right, can be magical and transcendent. There’s nothing “low-brow” about falling in love.”

Glass Houses (CBR12 #17)

Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #13)

There is, at least for me, somewhat of a struggle on deciding how to review a book deep into a series. Glass Houses is Louise Penny’s thirteenth Inspector Gamache book, and as she publishes a new one each year the sixteenth in the series will publish in September. There is so much backstory that feeds each new novel that I can’t rightly tell you to read this one if you haven’t read its predecessors, but I can emphatically tell you that if you like murder mysteries (and sometimes other kinds of mysteries) that ruminate on the human spirit than these books are for you and go pick up Still Life at your earliest convenience.

As for Glass Houses, Penny picks up a few months after the events of A Great Reckoning with Gamache now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Quebec. The book flips back and forward in time between events in November in Three Pines and a murder trial in July. Penny continues on of my favorite components of her writing – we are treated to a glimpse into some perhaps little-known history (this time the cobrador del frac), but this time she embellishes it and creates a fictional backstory. When a cobrador comes to Three Pines it unsettles the small community and eventually a body is found. The finding itself, the location, the who, and the how, all lead Isabelle Lacoste and her team to dig a little deeper into a murder in Chief Superintendent Gamache’s town.

Penny tries on new structural elements in her writing with each book, and this time the jumping back and forth between fixed points in the timeline in order to create suspense left me feeling flat. We don’t know who died for nearly a third of the book, and we don’t know who is on trial until nearly the end. We also don’t know until the very final chapters who the larger big bad is, lurking in the background. Because, this book is also about uncovering and taking down the largest drug trafficker in Quebec who happens to be using Three Pines as one of his depots. Gamache and his Superintendents (including Beauvoir as his second in command) are playing an all out war – they have burned their ships and have one chance to succeed, but it may very well cost them their jobs, and possibly their lives.

Even though the mechanical components of the work didn’t suit me, and kept the pacing uneven I still enjoyed this book and was pulled into the story. I care very much about the inhabitants of Three Pines and the members of the Sûreté and Penny delivers on that front. I’m rounding this 3.5 book up to 4 stars.

Teach Me (CBR12 #16)

Teach Me (There's Something About Marysburg, #1)

In the gift that keeps on giving, my moving romance authors who were vocal during the RWA’s (continuing) implosion to the top of my TBR has led to some solidly stellar reading. Its always nice to remember that smart, bitchy ladies who get mouthy at oppression and racism just write better books. Olivia Dade has been coming after the gatekeepers vocally since at least early 2019 (probably longer, but I’ve only been following her on Twitter about that long) and is just seriously funny. I was sold on her as an author before ever picking up one of her books.

Teach Me seemed the perfect book to dive in with. It’s a romance about two high school history teachers in their 40s who are each carrying some deep emotional scars and are also falling for each other against at least one of their better judgement (they trade off who is thinking it is or isn’t a good idea). This book gave me the warm feeling inside of seeing yourself (or a close enough version of yourself) on page. Representation of all kinds matters and seeing a positive representation of an overweight heroine appreciated for her curves, fashion sense, and strength lit up several happy receptors in my brain.

The book sets up many places for conflict between the characters, but it also focuses heavily on the kindness each of our incredibly competent leads brings. Rose is not nice to Martin, and she isn’t expected to be. She is however considerate and kind, and he is in return. They fall for each other based on their professional abilities and the depths of their care for their students, and the fact that they find each other irresistibly attractive. This book could play Rose’s closed off way of dealing with the world for laughs, or done it with Martin’s being devalued by those who should have loved him in the past, instead it infuses those areas with a sense of honesty that makes the characters ring true. Dade instead brings the funny in other areas, in other ways, and it is all wonderfully executed. I was so very glad to have read this book when I was done.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; P.S. I Still Love You; Always and Forever, Lara Jean (CBR #13-15)

Image result for to all the boys series covers

With the release of the To All the Boys P.S. I Still Love You on Netflix this week I decided to give in and read the series. I really liked the first movie in 2018 but didn’t pick the books up then. I was smitten with the movie and didn’t want to mess with that feeling. But eighteen months later I felt the time had come.

In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before we are introduced to Lara Jean Song Covey, middle sister of three, and a dyed in the wool romantic. Older sister Margot has stepped into the mother role following the accidental death of their mom years earlier. But Margot is about to go to university in Scotland, and just broke up with Josh, her boyfriend of two years who has served as a de facto Covey sibling, so Lara Jean will have to step up to take care of youngest sister, Kitty. Kitty is sassy and the best character in the series, I love her the most. Our other main player is Peter Kavinsky, the most handsome boy in town (with possibly the largest ego) Lara Jean’s first kiss and soon to be fake boyfriend. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

The meat of the story is Lara Jean’s love life or lack thereof. Lara Jean has never been on a date, or had a boyfriend, but she writes letters to the boys she has crushes on and puts them in a hatbox her mother gave her in order to get over the feelings. (Lara Jean is focused on protecting herself, which the series deals with over time.) The letters aren’t meant to be read, but someone sends them anyway. Peter Kavinsky, confronts Lara Jean – he’s a recipient of one of the letters – and as Margot’s ex Josh heads towards them, another letter recipient, Lara Jean kisses Peter in a moment of panic and runs. Following some drama with Peter’s ex girlfriend (and Lara Jean’s former friend) Peter and Lara Jean agree to pretend they are dating. Peter wants to make Gen jealous and get her back. Lara Jean is using Peter to show that she is over her crush on Josh. Fake emotions turn into real ones and Peter and Lara Jean have to decide what they want from each other and if they can salvage something from the deceptions.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before very quietly crafts its complex relationships, taking the time to set up the intricate web of emotions at play. Han dives into the inner life of Lara Jean. We’re with her through her ups and downs and things progress much slower. While the reader never gets inside his head, Peter has as complex an inner life as Lara Jean. The first book ends on New Year’s Eve, with several plot points that the movie adaptation resolved still being up in the air.

P.S. I Still Love You follows immediately picking up on New Years Day. Though Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship has changed from a contracted fake relationship to romantic real one, things do not go smoothly. Freshly after making up (in a scene I liked much better than the movie’s version), a video of Lara Jean and Peter’s romantic moment in a hot tub on the school ski trip (which gets pulled into the first movie) surfaces and goes viral on social media. The book expands the hot tub tape aspect of the story, giving it much of the first half of the book, which felt accurate.

Beyond the tape and all its attendant drama, Lara Jean is having difficulty controlling her feelings about Peter’s continuing relationship with Genevieve. Peter tells Lara Jean that she’s going through a “rough time” and needs him as a friend.  Lara Jean internalized this as Peter putting Gen first even though he is in a relationship with her. As things get complicated, Lara Jean finds herself distracted by the appearance of John Ambrose McLaren, another letter recipient.  As they begin to reconnect, Lara Jean wonders if she can have feelings for two boys at one time, and what that means about her relationship with Peter. This is a book full of teenage jealousy and hormones and misunderstandings and those great aspects of a young adult novel. The second half of the book picks up with the introduction of the Assassin’s game (I’m not a huge fan of the John Ambrose sections), which pits Lara Jean and Peter against each other and their friends. All those messy young adult emotions are in action and moving the plot the way you would expect in a well-written YA.

Unfortunately, the execution of P.S. I Still Love You is a little uneven, and weaker than the first. And my least favorite of the series.  Han sells the subplot on social media bullying and sexual double standards very well, but most of the rest fell flat. I particularly struggled with Peter’s characterization. He is emotionally flat and unavailable in this one and seems unaware of how his actions affect Lara Jean emotionally, and not paying attention to how Lara Jean is negatively comparing herself to Genevieve at every turn.  This doesn’t track with the character development Peter went through in the previous book. Initially Jenny Han was planning to end the series with this book and I’m glad she didn’t.

In the final book, Always and Forever, Lara Jean, Lara Jean and Peter have recovered from their temporary break up in the second book and are a real couple, dealing with real couple things. It’s spring of senior year and a staple of young adult novels comes into play: college decisions. There are also changes on the home front, when her father shares his intention to marry their neighbor, Trina. Lara Jean navigates a lot of adult decisions here, from her choices regarding college to balancing Margot’s dislike for Trina against their father’s love for his new fiancée and her own affection for her. She and Peter also get close to having sex, which is something that had not really been brought up in the books before, although the movies have been dealing with it. Han’s use of it as a plot point is handled in a way I haven’t really run across in YA and I was interested in the way it was woven in.

Overall, the series was as expected, they are sweet and funny and that’s a good thing. The plot of these three novels follow a lot of the topics that YA novels typically hit: conflicts with family, jealousy in relationships, the prospect of college, big decisions regarding life and sex and love. For the depth she manages, Han also keeps the writing light – these are incredibly quick reads, even when they are focused on serious and heavy topics. As to the characters, Peter and Lara Jean felt like teenagers — they made dumb choices and said stupid things and didn’t know how to manage their emotions or communicate them very well. The friendships, especially Lara Jean’s with Chris and Lucas and Peter’s friends on the lacrosse team, dove into the complicated networks that make up our lives. I also appreciated that Margot — who hadn’t been around while her dad and Trina fell in love — resented the engagement and wasn’t interested in the wedding, it all rings true. Thematically I appreciated how much their mother’s Korean culture and family history is woven into the books and how the strong bonds of sisterhood, which are tested several times throughout the book, are never broken. While these books are all three stars for me, I can see their appeal on the larger scale, and look forward to the third book’s movie adaptation which is already filmed and listed with a 2020 release year… so maybe this fall? A girl can hope.

Headliners (CBR12 #12)

Headliners (London Celebrities, #5)

I love Lucy Parker, its really as simple as that. I love the kind of book she writes, I love the world she has built in this series and the characters she chooses to populate it with. I’m rating this one five stars, as I did with its immediate predecessor The Austen Playbook mostly because of how it made me feel while I was reading it. That isn’t to say that Parker isn’t using her craft well – she absolutely is – but that craft sunk deep inside me and made me feel this story and recognize these characters, all while giving that little bit of wish fulfillment that romance novels give us and never once does Parker look down on her audience or write down to them. She is writing up.

Parker’s authorial voice is open and friendly, my fondness for the way she builds her world is grounded in its crispness. The plot and setting are laid out in the quick, quiet, strokes of a deft hand. Her word choice and well-chosen details build out the world and its people so that you know what you are reading and where they are, without being bogged down. Which is all for the best in Headliners because Parker set herself an enormous hill to climb for this books pairing of Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport at the end of The Austen Playbook.

For years, Sabrina and Nick have been rival TV presenters trading barbs on their respective shows. Things escalate however after Nick airs Sabrina’s family scandals to all of Britain. With both their reputations on the rocks (hers for the fallout of her father’s dishonesty and grandmother’s artistic theft, his for how h broke the story and getting caught on tape railing against his studio head) Sabrina and Nick have one chance to save their careers – resurrect the network’s morning show. But with ratings at an all-time low and a Christmas Eve deadline just weeks away to increase viewership, the clock is ticking—and someone on their staff doesn’t want them to succeed. As small mishaps on set start adding up, Sabrina and Nick work together to hunt down the saboteur. All the while their antagonistic relationship starts to change and when a fiery encounter is caught on camera, the public is convinced that the reluctant cohosts are secretly lusting after one another. The public might not be wrong.

Parker plays with the tropes here, but not as aggressively as in other works. She’s tweaking the hate to love trope to suit a relatable and believable history – two people pitted against each other are going to have a naturally cantankerous relationship and Nick did break the trust of many, many people. But, Parker as her characters name all the issues, and then face them. It isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t universal, but healing and the resolution of issues is part and parcel of the love story.

What I’ve noticed along the way is that Parker picks deliberately at different cultural commentary arenas with her books. Perhaps the clearest example is in Making Up where so much of the story focused on the arena of abusive relationshipsand the slow and sometimes incomplete nature of healing. This one doesn’t hold back either, in this case Parker is unpacking distant fathers. I feel like a lot of the media I’m consuming lately outside of books is rife with bad male authority figures (Star Wars, a Lost rewatch…) but the way Parker framed Sabrina and Nick’s relationships with their respective fathers stood out to me and hopefully stood out to other readers who might need the nudge to know that just because its your parent doesn’t make them universally and unreservedly right – particularly if they don’t put in the work to know you.

Parker is also taking on the “no holds barred” professional mindset that sees people trample one another on the way to the top. The series big bad (if it has one) is taken down in epic fashion as her own hubris finally gets the best of her. It, and checking in with characters from Act Like It and Pretty Face were the icing on this already delightful cake. I’m already missing these characters and I finished the book an hour ago. If you’ve made it this far in my review and aren’t reading these books – do it. They are worthy contemporary romances for anyone’s reading diet.

A Big Surprise for Valentine’s Day (CBR12 #11)

A Big Surprise for Valentine's Day (Holidays with the Wongs, #4)

In recent months Jackie Lau has jumped to the “read right away” position as her novellas in the Holidays with the Wongs series has been released. While I didn’t get an ARC this time, I have signed up to be considered in future. A Big Surprise for Valentine’s Day makes me feel that was a very good choice.

Picking up after the events of A Match Made for Thanksgiving and A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas and running concurrently with A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year this one focuses on our fourth and final Wong sibling, sister Amber. She is the youngest of the four and after a rough few years getting herself settled into her career (her dream job at the Stratford Festival sounds pretty great to me too) and dating only terrible men she gives herself a moratorium – no dating for now. But she’s missing the physical connection if not the emotional one and a run-in with Sebastian Lam in the grocery store family planning aisle finds them both with a partner for some no strings attached sex. Sebastian is newly back in the area after moving home following medical school, is a childhood friend of Zach, and has a reputation for being the “good son” to Amber’s “wild child”.

I was rooting for this pair from their meet cute buying condoms. Lau is playing with some opposites attract, although we discover that they aren’t all that opposite, in addition to her other tropes of the aforementioned Older Brother’s Friend and Friends with Benefits. Amber is taking steps to correct missteps in her past, Sebastian is letting himself discover what he wants his life to be, and they are each working on healthy boundaries with their families while staying connected (something that can be difficult even under the best of circumstances). They are also hot for each other, and kind. These novellas have never wanted on the Steamy front, but Lau puts the peddle down on this one and keeps going for its crisp hundred pages.

My only niggling complaint and it isn’t even that really, is that I think I would have liked to see Lau combine this one with A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year and write one novel length work instead of two novellas… which is probably a good sign since I’m planning to read The Ultimate Pi Day Party next month. In the meantime, this one published on February 4th, and you should definitely treat yourself to it.